Clergy: offer marriage services to folks without a religious ceremony?

flickr_weddingbanquetA few weeks back, I witnessed a Facebook exchange that pushed my perceptions of the role clergy play in solemnizing marriages. Clergy are agents of the state and are able to sign marriage certificates, though each state is different in how they define the clergy role. But the general sentiment is that clergy sign the certificates after a religious wedding ceremony.

To push against this sentiment, my friend posted the following on his publicly-viewable facebook. I will quote it verbatim but I won’t link to it unless he says it’s okay.

To my clergy friends:

If someone were truly hungry, but didn’t want to pray before the meal you served them, you would still feed them.

If someone were homeless and you offered them shelter even though they didn’t want to receive a liturgical blessing, surely they would still be welcome.

If someone who isn’t religious is imprisoned and you visit them but they don’t want to pray, we still have the responsibility to be with them.

Why then are we so reluctant to sign a marriage license for a couple that doesn’t want a religious ceremony? Is it not a gift that we can give to those in need?

My clergy friend seems to reference Matthew 25, the commonly-called “least of these” passage where Jesus imagines an apocalypse where Jesus says “whenever you fed the hungry, watered the thirsty, clothed the naked, visited those sick or in prison, then you did those to me.”

At first glance, the actions in Matthew 25 are acts of charity and hospitality, not efforts to effect a status change in an individual. However, for people who are going to get married anyway and are just looking for a justice of the peace or someone ordained over the Internet, to send them away to someone else is not an act of hospitality or charity at all. Their status will change regardless of what the clergy does, so why not participate and offer their services as an act of charity to them?

I know that clergy look down their noses at mail-order clergy who can be ordained online. But those folks serve two populations that are not traditionally covered by professional clergy:

  1. Folks who would never darken the door of a church. One of my clergy friends recounted that she signed the marriage certificates of a homeless couple who wanted the spouse to continue to receive the meager veterans checks in case the other spouse died. This couple had no money to pay a JotP. My friend signed the marriage certificate and hasn’t seen much of them since, but knows they are taken care of.
  2. Folks who want to be legally married in a different state than their religious ceremony. I am a member of this population. I had my religious marriage ceremony in Seattle with family and friends, but my future spouse and I wanted to be legally married in a state where marriage was equal. In 2006, that meant our then-present home of Massachusetts. So we had a brief ceremony and my mail-order ordained friend signed our wedding certificate that reflected our values of marriage equality.

To both these populations, they would be getting married without the clergy anyway. To both these populations, the church (and in some ways the state) has set a standard that these populations are not willing to reach. If a clergy were to offer marriage services, would they be denigrating the dignity of marriage? Or would they be offering a graceful alternative to the secular world’s costs and prohibitions?

I’m not convinced enough to start signing certificates willy-nilly, but it is an interesting argument that frames our civil agency in the context of a gift rather than a hurdle to overcome.

Any thoughts out there? In what ways is solemnizing marriages for those just looking for a signature an act of grace or an act of disgrace? Sound off below…

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  1. says

    I think our “powers” in this case should be unintelligible outside of worship. Marriage is not required for sustenance the way food, drink, etc. are, so I don’t think it is a fair comparison. A fairer comparison would be the open table, but even the open table of communion still occurs within the scope of some type of worship service, and it is activated by the gathered worshipping community with an elder presiding. If clergy were the only way folks could be married, that would be one thing, but there are plenty of other ways to get legally married.

  2. Tom says

    I speak as someone who has married his sister and his grandfather as well as done several ’emergency’ weddings. Homeless people where the man was living in the shelter and the bride in a friend’s living room; a couple who were both in the states illegally but who take their faith and vows seriously; a couple who because of family issues canceled the original wedding and only had one day before the license expired; a couple who had been living together for 10 years, had four children but who wanted to get right with Christ before the young man was sent back to jail for a parole violation; a couple who wanted their friend to ‘do the wedding’ but he wasn’t ordained so I did a quick wedding at the rehearsal so that the friend could do the wedding the next day; and even more. I’m in the God’s grace is greater than any of us category so if we can just take a moment and celebrate commitment and the intention toward fidelity then do it.

    I’m always clear that I’m not making a vow at the wedding the couple is. I’m not endorsing their marriage or saying it will either work or won’t work. I’m working as a guide through liturgy, ‘officiating’ if you will. The commitment, through the vows are theirs, by the grace of God.

  3. Amanda says

    I’m with Tom. I’ve done dozens of weddings in many kinds of settings and situations. I have also said no. I tell couples up front that I want to create a ceremony with them that is meaningful to them and reflects who they are as a couple. This means I’ve done ceremonies that are more evangelical than I am, nontheistic and most, quite similar to my own beliefs. I’ve done an “emergency” wedding, and then 16 months later, a vow renewal together with 100 of their family and friends. We always meet before hand, and with a couple of exceptions, I’ve offered up to six sessions of premarital counseling. I have sent people to professional counselors when their needs were greater than what I was equipped to provide. We always, regardless of there they end up, talk about their spiritual journey. This part of our conversation creates space for future conversations in their marriage. It also gives people a positive experience of a church they may have thought they wanted nothing to do with- or would want nothing to do with them. Conversations like these are what I encourage my congregations to have nearly every Sunday, as their witness.

    Last weekend I worked with a couple that came from a mixture of Catholic, Lutheran, Buddhist and humanist backgrounds. They told me the community would include evangelical Christians, agnostics and atheists. I told them I’d still like to offer a community based blessing. It went like this.

    Some of us here today believe in God, others aren’t sure, and some of us don’t. But we all believe in Life and Love. I ask that you will join with me in blessing this couple. (All join hands in a ring)

    In all the love you continue to nurture
    In the barefoot adventure you have chosen
    may you receive
    and hope to share with each other
    and all of us
    So say we all

    • says

      I’d like to use your words and credit you for them. If you would be willing to allow me to do so, would you please send me your name so that I know who I am quoting. Thank you.

  4. says

    I’ve done lots of kinds of wedding ceremonies, including for couples who “weren’t very religious.” In my experience, even if the conversation of pre-marital counseling starts with folks who describe themselves this way, the process of planning and preparing for a wedding can lead to some great faith-exploration conversations. Often what they really mean is, “I’ve found the church to be close-minded and judgmental, and I don’t want someone cramming that kind of thinking down peoples’ throats at my wedding.” But I think you actually have to agree to officiate and have a few conversations before you can find this stuff out with a couple…

  5. Faith says

    Would I prefer to marry couples who have spent time talking with me about their beliefs, their goals, their love for each other? Yes. Would I refuse to marry a couple I have never met and know little about? No. I may be the only contact they have ever made with a minister. For some reason, whatever it is, they chose ME, a minister, to officiate at their wedding. My refusal says something to them, “You are not worthy of my services.” I would never say that to anyone. Too many churches are already saying that to the poor, the homeless, etc. who don’t feel welcome in the church because they don’t “fit in” or feel comfortable there. I will not say it. I will officiate at the wedding and pray that my example means something to them.

  6. Tom Lambrecht says

    Interesting question, Jeremy. I think your original premise might be in error, however. I had a conversation with a lawyer recently, and he told me that we as clergy are NOT acting as agents of the state. (I always thought we were.) He said that the state recognizes the marriages that we do on behalf of the church. I believe the JoP would be an agent of the state. Therefore, we do not have an obligation to provide a social service to anyone who asks. I have normally required premarital counseling and a church-type service in order to preside over a couple’s wedding. (Of course, there are exceptional circumstances, but one cannot devise a “rule” that covers all exceptions.) If a couple doesn’t want a faith-based service, they don’t need me to do the wedding. As already pointed out, they have other options. I am not a social worker, but a minister of Jesus Christ. That role has to (normally) take the priority. When there are not enough hours in the day to do all that needs to be done in ministry, I think it is appropriate to prioritize spending time with people who want a Christian foundation for their marriage and are willing to spend time making adequate preparation for marriage (not just planning the wedding).

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